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Featured PhD Alumna: Amy Propen

PhD 2007, Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication
March 2, 2017
Amy Propen standing on a pier next to a pelican

Amy Propen is an Assistant Professor of digital and multimodal writing in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses in rhetoric and professional writing. Amy co-authored Rhetoric and Communication Perspectives on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Policy and Protocol Through Discourse with her advisor, colleague, and friend, Mary Schuster, due out March 21, 2017.

You have been at University of California, Santa Barbara since 2013, but you’ve taught in a variety of institutions. What have you learned about teaching, or how did you develop your teaching style in those various institutions?

One thing I’ve learned is that no matter where you are, when you work with great people, and I’ve been fortunate to have worked with great people everywhere I’ve been, then it’s easy to create opportunities for students to succeed. And when you create opportunities to help students succeed, they will succeed! At least, that has been the case everywhere I’ve worked and taught. Those opportunities for success might look a little different or be structured a little differently depending on the type of institution, for example, if you’re teaching someplace where there is a major or minor in place, versus someplace where a program is less formalized or in the process of being developed. But student success is always possible, and it’s always possible to create opportunities through coursework, internships, and the like, for students to work on projects that are meaningful to them in their daily lives and intended careers. So I’ve tried to work from that mindset in the various positions I’ve had.

You co-authored a book with Writing Studies’ Professor Mary Schuster, due out March 21st of this year, Rhetoric and Communication Perspectives on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Policy and Protocol Through Discourse. This is the second book you’ve co-authored with Professor Schuster. How did your collaboration start and what has sustained it?

Yes, this is our second book together! It’s hard to believe, but we started writing together back in 2003, so 14 years ago! We work so well together that I’m not even sure I can imagine writing with anyone else. I mean, sometimes I’m thinking about a question that’s come up about a paragraph or something, and Mary will phone at that moment with either the same question, or an idea that addresses that same issue—it’s like we have a telepathic writing relationship. But in any case, we first started writing together in spring 2003, in the context of Mary’s graduate seminar called Gender and Rhetoric in Science and Technology. We co-authored a book review that was actually my first scholarly publication. The review was for Susan Wells’ Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine. Mary had received an invitation to review the book for JAC, and because she is someone who always extends such opportunities to her students, she mentioned that students in the seminar should let her know if they were interested in working with her on the book review. I was indeed interested in the opportunity, not only because it was a chance to work on a piece for publication but also because I was interested in writing the piece with Mary and learning from her about the genre of the book review and more generally about scholarly publication. My work with Mary on that book review remains one of my fondest memories of my early years of graduate school. It seems funny to say now, because we’ve published so much together since then, but co-authoring that review was my first real experience with collaborative scholarly writing, and it was then that I understood the qualitative difference between the solitary and collaborative writing and revising process. Mary and I worked so well together as co-authors, that when I had the opportunity to continue working with her later on, I welcomed it. And that was the beginning of a writing relationship and friendship that continues to this day.

Book cover for Rhetoric and Communication Perspectives on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Policy and Protocol Through Discourse

You also have a single-authored book under advance contract, Conservation, Compassion, and Consciousness Through Technoscience: Visualizing a Rhetoric of Posthuman Marine Species Protection. Can you tell us about the book and what led to this interest?

Sure. In this book I’m generally focusing on the question of what it means to act with compassion and practice conservation in an age of technoscience, and in the Anthropocene. I’m building on my past work with visual-material rhetorics, and in many ways picking up from where my last book left off, to merge visual-material rhetorics even more so with ideas about compassionate conservation and the posthuman, by applying these ideas to three cases that involve the impact of ocean plastics on vulnerable seabirds, the debate about seismic testing and its potential impacts on marine species, and the rhetorical implications of conservation maps created by tracking the movements of marine species over time and space. In each of these cases, technologies of visualization, from photography to GPS tracking, play a prominent role in arguments to protect threatened marine species. Together, I’m thinking of these cases as helping to conceptualize a new visual-material, posthuman environmental rhetoric, informed by an ethic of compassionate conservation. In many ways, I’ve been working on this project since the completion of my last book in 2012. Even since my undergraduate studies, I’ve always been interested in geography, animal studies, and environmental rhetorics. I’ve also always been interested in marine life and ocean conservation, and in my recent work I’ve been trying to engage and bring together all of these interests even more. Being at University of California, Santa Barbara has been great in this regard, because they’re very receptive to a progressive, interdisciplinary approach to looking at marine conservation, and there are a lot of people and programs here, such as the new Environmental Humanities Initiative, that are welcoming of these ideas.

You participated in wildlife rehabilitation efforts related to a recent oil spill. And you are also studying the Midway Atoll garbage patch. How does your work, both scholarly and community, interact?

This question sort of picks up from your last one. Santa Barbara is a really good place for me to be, in the sense that it’s been very easy to engage my scholarly and broader environmental interests here. I have past training in oiled wildlife response from Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware, but there has also been a lot to learn here more recently. After the Refugio oil spill in 2015, there was a huge need for volunteers to help out on the front lines and also behind the scenes with cleanup efforts. To that end, I started volunteering with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network here in town. At that time, all of their main people, who were regionally and specifically trained in spill cleanup and oiled wildlife response, were dispatched to the coastal, affected areas, and they needed a lot of backup support at their center with everything from feeding baby birds, to maintaining enclosures, to helping out with seabirds who were coming in with oiled feathers, and so on. So, I was getting a lot of on-the-job training at that time and helping out in various ways. It’s something I’d like to continue doing, not only because it’s very satisfying to help in the aid and recovery of injured wildlife but also because being involved with efforts like this prevents our world from becoming too small. That is, for example, studying the Midway Atoll garbage patch and the issue of seabirds ingesting ocean plastics, as you mentioned, is something that I feel strongly about, but if I’m just reading theory all the time, then I start feeling like my world is getting too small, and the study of theory starts feeling detached and hypocritical. So, I like to approach these issues from a theoretical vantage point, but in a way that is also on some level informed by work that I can do in the world. That makes me feel a little more whole in terms of my perspective on these issues.

What do you enjoy most about teaching and your day-today work?

I really love the flexibility that I have to basically study and write about whatever I want, and I can teach courses in which it’s very easy for me to see and make connections between my scholarly interests and my teaching, both for myself and for my students. I’m also very fortunate to work at such a progressive, forward-thinking university, and to have such great colleagues who also approach writing from a perspective that considers the broader roles and consequences that rhetoric can have in the world. Basically, I work with really great, tuned-in people.

Anagrams of door signs made for April Fools day in the Rhetoric department in 2006

What University of Minnesota Writing Studies / Rhetoric classes or professors do you most remember and why?

That’s a tough question because I really valued all of my courses and loved all of the faculty at UMN. (I still think of the department as the Rhetoric Department, before it was Writing Studies.) We also had a great cohort of students when I was there, so I really look back fondly on that time. There was the one time that a bunch of us snuck into the department and replaced everyone’s name plates with their anagrams. In any case, if I had to think of a few courses, I’d say that the research methods course sequence, Rhetoric 8011 and 8012 [now Writ 8011 and 8012] was very formative, and we all really bonded in those courses.

Research Methods in Technical Communication (8011), was actually the first course I took in that program, and it was also with Mary! That course was integral to the development of my professional identity within the field (I think everyone who was in that course would also agree). All of the discussions as well as group and individual writing and research projects really helped us establish a sense of continuity in the program and a sense of identity within the field. The follow-up to that course (8012) was taught by Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch, and was also really integral to my professional development in the field. I believe that’s also where I developed a healthy respect for the IRB, ha!

We also all took classical and contemporary rhetorical theory with Richard Graff and Art Walzer, and I absolutely loved those courses. That’s where I first fell in love with Foucault and his tendency to figure things out through negation (which is also sometimes how I stumble through life), and when I realized that maybe Plato wasn’t being neurotic in his concern that the development of writing technologies would jeopardize humans’ individual autonomy.

What are you reading or what have you read lately that you enjoyed?

On the theory side, I’ve really been loving Donna Haraway’s latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. On the fiction side, I’d recommend Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and I also really like the work of Junot Díaz; I most recently read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.